Rabbi Steven’s sermon given on Rosh Hashanah 5782
Back in June, I was about to head home from work when my husband texts me: “Could you take your kippah off when you’re on the train?”
A Jewish man had just been the target of an antisemitic attack in Brooklyn. This was the latest in a series of incidents that had punctuated the summer months: a brick thrown through the window of a synagogue in Arizona, a swastika carved onto another in Utah, a person beaten at a rally in Times Square, another person jumped while walking to services on Shabbat, and – only two doors down from where we lived at the time – a Confederate flag tied to the door of the Museum of Jewish Heritage. In 2020, Jewish people and property were the targets of more than half of all religiously-motivated hate crimes in this country. We are less than 3% of the American population.
The origins of modern antisemitism are complicated, with roots that are both very old and quite new. Some of it we can anticipate. It should not surprise us to find that conspiracy movements like QAnon have recycled the worn-out trope of a shadowy cabal plotting a socialist takeover of the West. More worrying is how antisemitism, actual and perceived, has found its way into spaces that we, as Jews, have long considered safe.
Jews have long counted ourselves among those fighting for a more equitable world – and we have relied on other communities to help achieve this vision. From emancipation and suffrage to civil rights and gender equality, we have shown up as leaders and allies. It’s kind of what we do. Yet when the hard-earned coalitions that brought people of diverse backgrounds together for Pride, or the Women’s March, or Black Lives Matter begin to fall apart, when we are told – explicitly or implicity – to leave our Jewish identities at the door, it can begin to feel like we are very, very alone.
The rabbis imagine that in the moments before creation, God began to dream of new worlds. The first was founded on the attribute of rahamim, or compassion. It was a world of incredible grace, where people could expect forgiveness for their mistakes and missteps. Yet God found that in a world only defined by compassion people lacked accountability. Rough edges were never improved upon. Broken systems were never reformed. And so God dreamed of a second world founded on the attribute of din, or judgment. This was a place of deep discernment, as people held themselves and each other to the highest standards. Yet God discovered that a world exclusively shaped by judgement became too rigid. No decisions were contextualized. No quarter was given to those who lacked the support and resources to become their best selves. Finally, God dreamed of a third world – one that struck a balance between the attributes of rahamim, compassion, and din, judgment. Here people were held accountable and also met with grace.
This is the world we envision throughout the High Holidays. This is the world that our tradition calls us to co-create. Like God sitting on the throne of din, accounting for all the ways we have fallen short over the past year, we must be explicit in our commitment to justice. We can and should hold each other accountable for actions that cause harm. And wherever antisemitism manifests – whether it is subtle or overt, intentional or accidental – we are empowered to be unequivocal in its condemnation.
When people are asked to leave the Dyke March because they are carrying pride flags emblazoned with the Star of David, we need to explain how this decision harms the queer community. When organizers of the Women’s March embrace and excuse Louis Farrakhan – who has called us the “Synagogue of Satan” – we need to show how this hampers the creation of a more equitable society. When progressive coalitions fail to parse legitimate criticism of Israeli policies from anti-semitic bias, we need to teach them that it is critical to recognize the difference.
We cannot afford to simply shut out those who have wronged us. Part of allyship is having these hard conversations – and we can only do this because we refuse to give up our seat at the table. So as we imagine God sitting on the throne of din, or judgment, we also speak of God sitting on the throne of rahamim, or compassion. For as tempting as it might be to sever our connection with communities that have failed to welcome us in our fullest, and most Jewish, expression of self, our tradition is clear that – even when it feels like no one else is showing up for us – we show up.
When the shofar is sounded, we hear three different noises. The first is a tekiah, a continuous blast. The second, shevarim, is composed of three short bursts. The third is a teruah, a set of nine staccato notes. The tekiah is a battle cry, an alarm clock, a wake up call. Yet the shevarim and teruah is compared to the sound of weeping, the shuddering gasp and sharp cries of a person in pain.
The rabbis teach that the first person to cry out the sounds of shevarim and teruah was the mother of Sisera. The Book of Judges describes Sisera as a fearsome, and feared, general who used his forces to oppress the Israelites. After twenty years under his rule, our ancestors were able to overthrow his army. While fleeing the battle, Sisera was killed. This was cause for celebration – after two decades of violence and persecution, the Israelites were free.
After the battle, the prophet Devorah recounts the Israelite victory through song – “Through the window peered Sisera’s mother, behind the lattice she cried out: Why is his chariot so long in coming, why is the clatter of horses’ hooves delayed?” Drawing from this text, the rabbis explain that when Sisera did not return home, his mother let out one-hundred and one cries; these become the one-hundred blasts we hear on Rosh Hashanah and the closing tekiah gedolah of Yom Kippur.
What a radical proposition: that during the High Holidays – as we pray for a kinder, gentler year ahead for ourselves and our loved ones – we are called to listen to the pain of the other. And not just any other, but a person who enacted violence on our people: what some might call an anti semite. While we can and should celebrate our victory over those who have oppressed us, we are also commanded to transcend the divisions of fear and hatred to bear witness to their sorrow, to not see the “other” as anything other than human.
It’s not that we turn the other cheek. We are entitled to lives free from persecution and violence, here and wherever we may find ourselves. The fight against antisemitism is far from over – and looking at the work that needs to be done, we have reason to ask: What is the use of maintaining relationships with people and communities who seem reluctant to be allies to the Jewish community?
This line of thinking is the product of a scarcity mindset. We have been taught that the resources for substantive change are in short supply. That the mechanisms of justice are limited. That this town just isn’t big enough for all of us. Yet the perception that there is only so much to go around has been used to divide and disenfranchise marginalized communities throughout history. It is embedded in our political rhetoric. Just turn on the television. Those in power would pit immigrants against low-income workers, cisgender women against their trans siblings, Jews against communities of color – and while we fight among ourselves, the actual sources of injustice and inequality remain untouched.
There are reasons to be afraid. Yet unchecked, fear contributes to a scarcity mindset: it drives us to close ranks and turn inward, building higher walls and thicker doors. We carefully guard the borders of our community, quick to decide who is in and who is out by submitting each other to tests of ideological purity. What do you think about BLM? Are you a Zionist? Did you say apartheid? You still follow the Squad on Instagram? We ask in the spirit of Rabbi Hillel: if we are not for ourselves, who will be? We worry that the answer may be “no one,” and forget his second question, “If we are only for ourselves, what are we?” If we reduce the space in our hearts for compassion, if we are no longer able to recognize and relate to the suffering of other people, we lose an essential component of what makes us human.
As much as a world without judgment cannot be maintained, a world without compassion is also unsustainable. This is the inheritance of our tradition, one that recalls a history of violence and persecution to orient us toward a more just, more hopeful future. The Torah reminds us, “You know the soul of the stranger for you were also strangers in the land of Egypt.”
We don’t remember the Exodus to reinforce distrust of those outside our community. Instead, the pain of our past calls us toward every place where brokenness persists today – even places that are uncomfortable or unwelcoming. And quite frankly, Judaism doesn’t care if we’re the only ones that show up. When we are commanded to safeguard the dignity of the widow and the orphan, when we are instructed to clothe the naked, feed the hungry, and free the captive, when we are obligated to judge fairly and forgive readily – not once are we told to expect something in return. Yes, we commit to these mitzvot because they are our sacred inheritance; yet we also fulfill them because we know what it is like to stand on the margins of society.
From this experience we refuse the distortions of a scarcity mindset. We know that when din and rahamim, when accountability and compassion, work in tandem a new world can be created: one in which people can come together to bridge the divisions of distrust and disagreement, to teach and learn from each other, and in the end uncover an abundance of courage, strength, and vision. Turning away from each other only allows misunderstanding and ignorance to persist, which is fertile ground for the seeds of hatred. When we refuse to sever association, when in our moment of pain we reach out and pull each other into conversation, that is when healing can happen.
For my last two years of rabbinical school, I served as an intern at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah – one of the oldest and largest LGBTQ synagogues in the world. Part of my job was to help support our social justice programming, which included an initiative called House of Peace. This was a group of people who, when the ban targeting immigrants from majority Muslim countries was announced, decided that they would stand outside a local mosque in a display of allyship. The idea was simple: how would history have been different if, at different points throughout our history, the average citizen had shown up at synagogues to show their support for Jews. And so each Friday, as people were arriving for jum’ah prayers, this eclectic group of queer and queer-adjacent Jews gathered right in front of the mosque carrying signs of welcome and solidarity.
We got a lot of questions. Was this a good use of our time? How is this helping anyone? When has the Muslim community ever shown up for us? But we continued standing there, and over time we began to recognize the people coming to pray and they began to recognize us, and looks of puzzlement and curiosity turned into high fives and hugs, and we started to engage each other in dialogue about important things: the core values of our traditions, our different beliefs and practices, how we talked about and to God, and yes, even Israel and Palestine. We agreed as much as we disagreed – but even when these conversations became awkward or uncomfortable, we still showed up as allies.
Then on October 27, 2018 a gunman walked into the Tree of Life Synagogue and murdered eleven Jews. It was and still is the deadliest attack on our community in the history of this country. I remember the flurry of meetings that week as we debated whether it was safe to gather for Shabbat. CBST is a prominent synagogue – and as both an LGBTQ and Jewish community had attracted substantial hate over the years. But with the knowledge that we have persisted under the threat of violence innumerable times throughout our history, we decided to continue with services as planned. I could not have anticipated what was waiting for us at the synagogue that Friday. Over one hundred people from that same mosque standing outside our doors, holding signs of welcome and support.
I offer this story because it is only one example of something we know to be true: that when we choose conversation over dissociation, when we invite each other in rather than push each other out, transformation can occur. By showing up, even when it feels like no one is showing up for us, we can begin to build the kinds of relationships that allow us to hold each other accountable when we’ve been wronged, protect each other when we are afraid, and walk together toward a more equitable future. This is what it means to be an ally. I cannot guarantee that every time we bear witness to the pain of the other, wounds will be healed. But I do know that we cannot afford the brokenness that will persist if we decide to not show up at all. And although it can be hard, and although it can be scary, and although it can sometimes seem unfair or uncomfortable, our tradition is clear: we show up.
My prayer for this coming year we continue to show up in queer spaces, in women’s spaces, in spaces for people of color, in all those spaces where we fight for social and economic equity – as allies and as members of those communities – so that we can stay part of the conversation, call out antisemitism when and where it occurs, and build the world we know is possible.
This was beautiful and timely rabbi. Thank you so much for being able to articulate what so many of us are thinking but don’t have the gift of words and perspective you have shared. Shalom from Texas.